Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and Toddlers

Like all parents, you love your children more than anything and want them to be healthy, happy and successful.

Perhaps that’s why discipline can be so frustrating and even downright exhausting sometimes.

What do you do when, despite all your best efforts, your child still refuses to eat his or her veggies, hits another child or throws a tantrum?

Take a deep breath and be patient. Kids don’t grow up overnight — although sometimes it feels like it! Learning good behavior takes time and practice, and every child develops at his or her own pace.

Here are some approaches to positive discipline for preschoolers and toddlers that will help you navigate this important aspect of childhood.

Remember Discipline Is Teaching

You may be used to associating discipline with punishment. Instead, start thinking of discipline as a way to teach important life skills.

  • Be a good role model. Your children are watching and listening more than you think. For example, if hitting is against the rules for them, it should be against the rules for grown-ups too.
  • Kids need to know what to do, not just what not to do. Instead of always saying “no hitting,” say things like “be kind” or “be gentle.”
  • Praise good behavior. Smile and say “great job!” whenever your child does the right thing, like putting toys back on the shelf.

Practice Age-Appropriate Discipline

Many so-called “misbehaviors” are actually normal early childhood behaviors.

For example, a curious toddler will naturally want to investigate something that catches their eye, even if it happens to be in the middle of the street. That’s why it’s up to adults to provide much-needed protection and guidance.

  • By age 2, your toddler will begin testing you just to see how you react. As noted above, give positive feedback for good behavior, and intervene whenever your child tries to do anything dangerous. Distract your child from inappropriate behavior by offering another appealing activity.
  • Preschool, between ages 3-5, is a good time to introduce easy chores, like putting toys away. Start setting rules and communicate the consequences of breaking them. For example, if your child draws on the wall, they have to help clean it up.

Prevention Before Punishment

Don’t wait for your child to do something wrong. Teach good behavior as part of your everyday routine, and not just in the heat of the moment.

  • Keep rules clear and simple. Use household rules to promote safety, good habits and respect for others. Give reasons for rules that are easy to understand, such as “We walk on the sidewalk because the street is for cars.”
  • Let your child make decisions among acceptable alternatives. Young kids need to feel empowered to act independently rather than having everything dictated by adults. One example might be offering more than one healthy food to choose from at dinner time.
  • Have a routine. Abrupt changes can be very upsetting for young kids and trigger misbehavior. When your child knows what to expect at bedtime or when getting ready for school, things tend to go more smoothly.
  • Eliminate temptation. Because it’s natural for children to explore their surroundings, keep forbidden items out of reach and out of sight. Lock up choking hazards, breakables, electronics and household chemicals, and make sure heavy furniture is protected from tipping over.
  • Anticipate misbehavior triggers. Chances are, your child acts out more when tired, hungry, irritable or feeling overwhelmed or ignored. Talk to your child before going to the store about what to do, and offer frequent reminders and encouragement along the way. If there is a new sibling in the family, let older children know they are still important with a special gift or by letting them help take care of the new baby.

Responding to Misbehavior

Mistakes are how we learn. That is true at every life stage. When your child does the wrong thing, treat it as an opportunity to teach valuable lessons that will help them in the future.

  • Be quick and consistent with consequences. If you tell your kids they’ll have to sit in time-out if they hit someone, follow through immediately if they disobey. While rules should be age-appropriate and not overly harsh, failing to enforce them can erode your child’s trust and respect for you.
  • Know when not to respond. If a mistake isn’t particularly dangerous, sometimes it’s best to let your child learn to live with the consequences. For example, if your child breaks a favorite toy, they can’t play with it anymore, and it won’t be replaced.  
  • Use time-outs effectively. Time-outs don’t have to be long — about 1 minute per year in age is enough, starting at age 2. The time-out area should be free of toys, screens and other distractions, and the time-out period should begin immediately following the offending behavior.  
  • Why not spanking? The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that spanking actually increases anger and aggression in children, and may have other harmful effects. It also sends a message that hitting is okay if you are angry.  

What About Tantrums?

What if, after all your best efforts, your child still gets upset and throws a tantrum? As uncomfortable as it can be for parent and child alike, tantrums are a normal part of child development. Knowing what to do is the key.

  • Understand why tantrums happen. Toddlers especially get frustrated when they don’t have the vocabulary to explain what is wrong. Also remember that they don’t yet understand the concepts of public and private, so they don’t know that crying in the middle of a store is embarrassing for you.
  • Stay calm and listen. You can respond to your child’s needs better when you keep your cool. Pay attention to what specifically is causing the problem. Make sure your child isn’t sick, injured or in any danger.
  • Don’t give in to inappropriate requests. Every child needs to learn that things won’t always go their way. If your child is screaming because it’s time to turn off the TV, or you won’t buy that exciting toy, giving in teaches the opposite lesson — that a tantrum is a good way to get what they want.

Parents and teachers alike play an important role in helping your child develop good habits and learn from mistakes. At Little Sunshine’s Playhouse & Preschool®, our proprietary Creatively Shine™ curriculum promotes good discipline by emphasizing social skills alongside of academic subjects like reading and math.

Contact a location near you to learn more!

Check out our previous blog posts for more ways to support your child’s development:

What Is Your Parenting Style?

Tips for Reducing Separation Anxiety in Preschoolers

The Importance of Nap Time for Kids’ Early Development